Module 1: Understanding Visual Ethnography

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Researching the Visual

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It derives its meaning from all aspects that make up the context, people, activities, events,
beliefs, ideas and so on. In a sense, images too become our participants, and through them,
we try to learn about the environment in which they exist. Maybe an example will make this
(Refer Slide Time: 0:39)

Let us refer to a strand of my research into Bhil painting. In the exploration of the journey of
Bhil painting, my team and I came across what seemed like an important moment in its
history. This was the shift from painting on walls to painting on paper or canvas. This shift
had come about as a result of interventions by artist and craft activist in the late 1980s led by
the artist J. Swaminathan.
The shift was connected to the socio-economic conditions of the community; the Bhil have
faced decades of social and economic discrimination and marginalisation. Their forests have
been usurped by multiple mainstream governments. Due to these factors, generation after
generation the Bhils have had to leave their villages and their forests, to make a living as
manual unskilled workers in large cities.
(Refer Slide Time: 1:39)

That such communities should be left alone to themselves does not seem to be a viable
proposition either. Their jungles no more belong to them, they can no more practice their
traditional mode of cultivation in the name of conservation of forests which are anyway being
systematically destroyed for catering to urban and development needs. They cannot seek and
hunt game anymore, and the inroads of the money economy are seemingly irreversible.
Swaminathan suggestion that the Bhils paint on paper and sell their paintings through fairs
and exhibitions gave them access to a new means of livelihood. This was an opinion that
enables them to remain connected to their culture. Understanding this history, I came to see
that there is an important connection between the shifts in Bhil painting and the community's
socio-economic conditions.
Exploring this connection helped me understand the socio-economic structures and the
history that have defined the lives of the Bhils in Madhya Pradesh. As the paintings become
more commodified, many things changed.
(Refer Slide Time: 2:51)

The size of the paintings changed. They became smaller to fit paper and canvas.

(Refer Slide Time: 2:57)

Because they were being painted for a larger audience, they now depicted subjects that
related to the Bhils everyday lives.
(Refer Slide Time: 3:05)

And Bhil women who traditionally are not allowed to paint secret images were now making
paintings on canvas and paper. Observing these changes, I wanted to explore one more

(Refer Slide Time: 3:17)

Did these shifts affect their relationship to painting? Would they be amenable to creating
them on a computer? And they said, No, it is still a secret art and has to be painted by hand,
and because I asked this question, they explain to me.
(Refer Slide Time: 3:34)

That each dot that forms a Bhil painting represents an ancestor, so each image that they make
is a universe of memories of their ancestors. The fact that this painting is going to be sold
does not change this. For the Bhils, painting remains a way of praying to their gods for the
well-being of the community.

(Refer Slide Time: 4:00)

As we read visuals and the act of making them, we are able to draw connections between the
visual and its context. Making these connections, we learn about the larger socio-cultural and
economic structures in which the visual exists. And we learn about the meanings individual
participants associate with the visual. There is another aspect to researching the visual.
(Refer Slide Time: 4:24)

We pay attention to the content, form and aesthetic of the visual. We draw connections
between a particular visual and the other visual elements in the environment. By drawing
these connections, we try to understand the visual culture or what we may call the visual
language of our participants' world.

(Refer Slide Time: 4:46)

Let us elaborate on this a bit more. In doing visual ethnography, we try to read a visual at
multiple levels. We try to read a visual or a set of visuals on its own. What does its form,
content and aesthetic tell us?

(Refer Slide Time: 05:04)

So, for instance, in reading the Bhil paintings, I paid attention to their form made of dots, to
the colours used and the characters and objects depicted. In doing this, I tried to understand
what the painting or the art form was trying to convey.
(Refer Slide Time: 5:22)

So, for example, I noticed how people, objects and space were depicted in Bhil paintings.
Objects and structures like houses, trees, rivers are painted such that they are easy to
recognise. But the human form is quite abstract. This tells us something about the Bhils' ways
of seeing.

(Refer Slide Time: 05:43)

We also try to read different forms of visual expressions such as craft objects, paintings,
prints, media images and so on. So, in my work with the Bhils, besides observing their
(Refer Slide Time: 5:57)

I also observed the objects used in their everyday life and in their rituals. I looked at their
landscapes and activities and how these were represented in the paintings. Looking at all of
these, I learned something of the community's visual language. Additionally, I looked at the
Bhils traditional stories and folk their oral culture.

(Refer Slide Time: 6:19)

I observe their prayer rituals which engage all of the senses, smell, sound, taste.
(Refer Slide Time: 6:26)

In living with them, I experienced the food they ate, the weather conditions they lived in, the
textures and smells that made up their worlds.

(Refer Slide Time: 06:37)

Through these, I attempted to draw connections between their sensorial experiences and their
visual expressions.
(Refer Slide Time: 6:47)

Let me give you another example that I like very much, which is the work of anthropologist
Christopher Pinney.

(Refer Slide Time: 6:50)

His work focuses on the poster making tradition in India in particular on the pictures of Gods
created in the early days of printing in British India. These images are known as
chromolithographs. We are quite familiar with these images as we may have seen them in
many homes and establishments.
(Refer Slide Time: 7:11)

In his work, Photos of the Gods, he analysed these to create a narrative of national
consciousness that emerged in the subcontinent around that time.
So, what do you think Pinney asked himself as he looked at these images? Pinney's process of
researching these visuals is relevant to our discussion. He interprets the images at two levels,
first, by reading what the images themselves say. And second by reading different forms of

visual expressions such as theatre painting and prints. Let us see how he does each of these
and what he learns in the process.
(Refer Slide Time: 7:54)

One of the contexts in Pinney's research is Calcutta of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

(Refer Slide Time: 8:02)

This is where the first lithography press, the Calcutta Art Studio was established. The studio
began with creating images of Gods which became hugely popular. The patrons of the studio

bought these images not as 'art' but as a picture of god, which they could worship in their
(Refer Slide Time: 8:22)

Pinney became curious about how these mass-produced images became sacred objects. He
looked carefully at what the images depicted and what ideas defined the subject composition
and aesthetic of the image. He came to see that images were defined as sacred because of the
ways in which the gods were depicted.
(Refer Slide Time: 8:45)

In many of the images, the deity was placed in the centre, front-facing, sometimes framed by
worshippers on either side. This was uncannily similar to how idols are placed in temples.
This led Pinney to explore the idea of darshan, which is an important concept in Hindu
practice of worship.
(Refer Slide Time: 9:06)

To perform a darshan means to see the gods, and to be seen by them. Forms of worship such
as pilgrimage, or praying before an idol or a picture are based on and defined by this mutual
'seeing' of the god and the worshipper. If you have visited a Hindu temple, think of how the
idol is placed.
(Refer Slide Time: 9:27)

It is always made to face centre front. It just visually emphasised by placing various elements
such as pillars or even, smaller idols on either side. It is often placed in a way that enables the
worshipper to make eye contact with the deity. In making the chromolithographs, the artists
translated this idea of darshan into their prints using these basic visual techniques.
(Refer Slide Time: 9:59)

Besides placing the deity centre front, they emphasised the gaze of the deity by giving visual
importance to the eyes or by making them large. Sometimes they added props such as
curtains framing the deity giving them more visual importance. In this manner, the artists
tried to emphasise the visual connection between the deity and the worshipper, thus fulfilling
the desire for darshan.
To Pinney, coming from a Western culture, such a depiction stood out. It contrasted with how
gods were depicted in Western classical art as a separated from the world of the devotee. But
in 19th century Bengal, these contrasting ways of seeing were coming together. Modernist
ideas championed by the British and existing ideals of Hinduism were interacting with each
other. This interaction created a new form of Hindu consciousness. Pinney recognised this
mix of ideas in the prints created by the Calcutta Art Studio.
(Refer Slide Time: 11:02)

The artists of the studio had been trained in art schools run by British educators and
administrators. The artists were influenced as much by the ideas of their Hindu patrons, as
they were by their British instructors. The images from this coming together of ideas were
interesting and sometimes strange.
(Refer Slide Time: 11:23)

Like this image, depicting a myth from the life of Shiva, where Shiva seated not quite in the
centre looks sideways and directs his burning gaze towards Madan, a minor deity. As you
may notice here, the painting departs from the centre front style of idol depiction. But that is
not the only departure. Shiva's Kailasa Parbat is transported from the Himalayas to a setting
resembling the European Alps dotted with pine trees native to Scotland.
(Refer Slide Time: 11:57)

Let us take one more example. See this image of Nala and Damyanti, produced by the studio
in 1880. Nala Damayanti characters from the Hindu mythology were royals of distant
kingdoms. They fell in love with each other, simply by hearing about the others' qualities.
Damayanti chose Nala as groom, rejecting the gods who had proposed to marry her.

Angered, that she chose a mere mortal over gods, the demon god called Kali cursed the
couple as a result after some years of living together as king and queen, they were forced out
of their kingdom and exiled into the wilderness. One night during their exile, under the
influence of the curse, Nala abandoned Damayanti while she was asleep.

This print depicts that fateful night. The image locates them in a pastoral landscape which
looks very European. Nala and Damayanti, the demon Kali showed in this sky, the trees and
rocks are all painted in a classical European way. All this must have been unfamiliar to the
Indians buying these prints.

Both these images situate familiar characters Shiva, Nala, Damayanti in a unfamiliar
European looking settings. Why would the artist do such a mix? There can be different
interpretations of this. Pinney read these images as a coming together of different symbols,
entities and styles. As they came together, the symbolism and meaning of these entities
transformed. In European art, a pastoral setting was often used to depict a sense of belonging

with nature. In the Nala and Damayanti image, it becomes a space of un-belonging, posing
harsh and unwelcome conditions for Nala and Damayanti who have been forced out of their
palatial lives. There can be one more interpretation.
(Refer Slide Time: 14:08)

Let us look at the Madan Bhasma print once again. Here, Shiv's abode Mount Kailash
resembles a Swiss Alpine landscape. Perhaps, the artist was trying to equate the divinity of
Kailash with the foreignness of European mountains.
(Refer Slide Time: 14:21)

By making this comparison, he could be saying that the place where our gods live are foreign
to us. They are unlike anything most of us have ever seen or will see. He could also have
been saying that Europe must be divine, like the abode of our gods.
In the Nala Damayanti print, the artist creates a space that is mighty imposing and terrifying.
There is nothing familiar or comforting in this forest.The foreign elements and style of
painting and the situation of Nala Damayanti together create a sense of unbelonging and
helplessness. Here, the artist equated European-ness with a discomforting kind of foreignness
before which one is helpless.
(Refer Slide Time: 15:12

So, maybe in making this print, the artist was depicting the sense of alienation and lack of
control that many Indians felt before their European colonisers.

(Refer Slide Time: 15:21)

In this manner, we may read an image to come up with multiple interpretations of its context.
Pinney read these images to make sense of the different social and cultural movements taking
place in the early 1900s.

(Refer Slide Time: 15:37)

So, far in this discussion, we have talked about how Christopher Pinney tried to read a set of
visuals on their own and the insights that emerged from such reading. In the same study, he
read across different forms of visual expression. And he explored the theatre productions of

that era. This led to some fascinating insights. We will discuss those in our next section,
where we continue this conversation on researching the visual.To research with the visual means to create or construct visuals as a way of learning from our
participants and to interpret and represent what we learn from these visuals. We can make
(Refer Slide Time: 0:19)

photographs, videos, comics strips, infographics, and so on.

(Refer Slide Time: 0:24)

We can also use visual devices to access our participants, their knowledge and their ideas.
Among the most ways in which ethnographers use visual methods is recording their field
engagements. Here let us recall our discussion on making fieldnotes. We had emphasised
then how recording is also interpreting and that the act of making fieldnotes is in fact our first
analysis. This applies to visual records as well.
(Refer Slide Time: 0:57)

Our objective is not simply to make records but to learn from these records. Let us take an
example of how visual recording may be used towards learning from our participants.
(Refer Slide Time: 1:08)

We will discuss a project undertaken by social workers Doctor Susan Taylor-Brown and
Doctor Lori Wiener and sociologist Doctor Donna Barnes in the late 1990s in the United
States of America. Their women participants who were infected with HIV and some of them
were grappling with the possibility of an early death due to AIDS. The project focused on the
women's concerns about the future of their children in light of their illness, the stigma
associated with HIV-AIDS,
and their potential death. From their previous engagement with the participants, the
researchers had learnt that the women's major concerns revolved around providing mothering

care to the children after they had passed on. This question of providing care became central
to the study.
(Refer Slide Time: 2:03)

Mothers who precede their dependent children in death leave this business of everyday
mothering prematurely and unfinished. How will their children be informed of family
history? Who will guide them in their life decisions of relationships, school, and work? Who
will supervise the knowledge of drug use, menstruation for young girls, prevention of
pregnancy for young boys and girls, prevention of HIV/AIDS?
(Refer Slide Time: 2:30)

How will that children be protected from discrimination, verbal and physical abuse from the
family, and from the outside world? Who will be there to help formulate their children's

belief in life, death, and afterlife? The research's sorted a way through which participants
could convey their deepest thoughts to share with their children and also for the researchers
to analyse. Through discussions and engagements, they together came upon the idea of
making video recordings.
(Refer Slide Time: 3:01)

It was suggested that through these recordings, the mothers could address their children. They
could try to answer important questions that their children would face later in life, when the
mother may no longer be around. Thus, the videos would enable the participants to create
artefacts that help continue the task of mothering. We learn a valuable lesson from the use of
video in this study.
(Refer Slide Time: 3:31)

We must understand the particular characteristics of a visual medium and then use it
appropriately towards our research objectives. For this study, video was especially suitable.
And this appropriateness becomes apparent when the participants' explain their reasons for
choosing video over any other medium. Many of the participants were aware of how much
their kids loved TV.
(Refer Slide Time: 3:58)

And so they thought their kids would love to see their mothers on the screen. Some of the
participants wanted to leave behind a visual memory. They wanted to be remembered as they
were at that time well and healthy before the illness started to affect the way they looked.
(Refer Slide Time: 4:15)

The researchers believed that the act of recording themselves would enable the participants to
make sense of their situation and the video would allow the researchers to learn not only what
the mothers wanted to say but also the emotions underlying that information. By analysing
the recorded messages, researchers could explore their participants' ideas of mothering, their
feelings and their concerns towards their children and themselves. As the study progressed, it
became even more clear that the visual device, the video camera, in this case, was not simply
a substitute for any other form of recording, it was an integral and essential part of the
(Refer Slide Time: 5:03)

The medium helped the participants to depict themselves not only in words or images but
through tone and sound of their voice, their facial and bodily language and the ways in which
they composed their appearance. Some mothers carefully arranged the frame to include in it
objects they associated with the relationship. One mother enacted how the children should
give themselves the hug by wrapping their arms around themselves.
Another subconsciously rocked herself to and fro as she recounted the birth of her children.
In a sense, video recording offered a certain depth and richness of expression which went
way beyond words.

(Refer Slide Time: 5:45)

The combination of staging and the spontaneity that video allows enabled the participants to
convey themselves in ways that they did not expect. For one, they were able to express
themselves with the urgency that they felt given their situations. And uninterrupted by an
interviewer, they were able to express themselves without mediation. Even sharing anecdotes
that they had been previously unable to convey to anyone. Let us pause here and reflect for a
moment on this study. We have discussed that the choice of making video records of the
participants' narratives was not by chance. In fact, it was critical to the design of the study.
(Refer Slide Time: 6:30)

We would like you to note down the various ways in which video recording helped the
research and the research participants. If you like, you can replay some parts of our
discussion to answer the question.
(Refer Slide Time: 6:45)

You may have listed the comfort that the participants felt in video recording themselves. You
may have noted the ability of video to record the spoken as well as unspoken expressions of
the participants. Did you note down the value that the participants believed their children
would attach to video recordings of their mothers? And that on video, participants could be
recorded as they looked at the time of recording before their health failed them. We hope you
mentioned the spontaneity and staging that video recording allowed the participants. A
similar kind of spontaneity and staging also happens in photography.

(Refer Slide Time: 7:28)

We see an example of this in the work of the British anthropologist Marcus Banks. While
doing fieldwork in a small town in India, Banks was invited to a community dinner by his
participants or friends as he refers to them. He brought along his camera hoping to take
pictures of the event, though at that moment he had not clearly anticipated what he would
record. As the dinner progressed, his participants started asking him to take pictures of
particular moments. At one point, they asked him to take a photographs of the host, a woman
whose generous donation had helped them make the event possible.
(Refer Slide Time: 8:10)

They directed Banks to frame her as she served a rich, yoghurt based dessert into the plate of
a guest. He realised that this was their way of recording her contribution.

(Refer Slide Time: 8:25)

Bank says, it is also a legitimisation and concretisation of social facts as my friends saw
them: the fact that the feast had a social origin in the agency of one person the feast donor as
well as by the virtue of the religiously and calendarically prescribed fasting period that

preceded it, the fact that this was a good feast during which we ate the expensive and highly-
valued yoghurt dessert.

(Refer Slide Time: 8:56)

For Banks, the camera acted as a tool for collaboration between him and his participants. In
the work of Dona Bans and her colleagues, the camera facilitated collaboration between the
researchers and participants. Through these examples, we see the value of visual media in co-

constructing ethnographic records. In the case of doctor Bans and her colleagues, this was
done by participants recording themselves.

In Banks' case, it came about because the participants directed the researcher on what records
to make. There is another way in which many researchers use the visual to collaborate and
engage with participants. The method is commonly called photo-elicitation, though it is not
limited to the use of photographs.

Researchers may use drawings, illustrations, even films to elicit knowledge from their
participants. The visuals may be used as icebreakers between researcher and participants.
They may be used as a way to jog the participants' memory or sometimes as a way to
overcome language and cultural barriers.

Ethnographer Karen O'Reilly writes about one such project in which a researcher Helen used
drawing as a way of engaging with her participants. Helen was doing ethnographic research
in a business organisation. During her conversations with participants, she noticed that the
managers emphasised the lack of hierarchy in the organisation.
(Refer Slide Time: 10:33)

They would say things like, "we are all treated the same here, and no one is more important
than anyone else." or "workers can go and speak to the line manager whenever they want, we

are very informal. On the other hand, the workers who were lower down in the hierarchy
often spoke about how difficult it was to approach the managers.
(Refer Slide Time: 10:54)

One of them said "..., there are so many layers here, so many people all above each other, just
look at the building. Inspired by this quote, Helen decided to bring the building into her
conversations with participants. She asked individual participants to draw the structure of the
building and mark who sat where. As the exercise progressed, even those who believed that
the organisation had a non-hierarchical structure started to see its sharply marked hierarchy.

As participants saw their ideas being contrasted or affirmed by their own drawings, they
started to reflect on their assumptions. This led to some very interesting and rich discussions
between the researcher and her participants. Photo elicitation is quite popular with designers
who wish to learn the needs and desires of their participants. You will see a detailed case
study of such a project in our next module.

(Refer Slide Time: 11:58)

Let us return to the photograph made by Marcus Banks at the community dinner. You may
wonder what about this image is particularly ethnographic? For one, Banks did not know
while going to the event that he would find such an incident there nor that he would be
instructed to make any photographs by his participants. Moreover, the image that he made
may not have been very different from any other photograph of the event.

(Refer Slide Time: 12:24)

Well, what makes an image ethnographic in nature is the intentionality that goes into its
making and the ethnographic knowledge that we access by interpreting the image. Let us
discuss this a bit more. The photograph that Banks made had certain meanings for those
involved in its making.
(Refer Slide Time: 12:46)

For Banks, it represented his collaboration with his participants. For his participants, it was a
record of the host, an important person and her role in their community. By interpreting the
photograph and the moment of its making, Banks was able to understand the meanings that
his participants attached to the event, the host and even the dessert the dessert that she served.

(Refer Slide Time: 13:12)

It is this process of interpretation through which we analyse an image for meaning that makes
the image ethnographic. And even though the clicking of the photograph may seem like a
coincidence, it is hardly so. This particular photograph was preceded and made possible by
weeks and months of fieldwork. Time and work were put into building relationships and
familiarity with participants. It was due to this camaraderie and trust that Banks was made the
'designated photographer' of the event.
(Refer Slide Time: 13:47)

And so we see there is an intentionality present in the making of the ethnographic image.
This intentionality directs us to learn from the image and from the process of its making.

(Refer Slide Time: 14:00)

In taking this photograph, Banks learnt that social relationships are made tangible in events
like the one he attended and in objects like the special dessert served at the event.

(Refer Slide Time: 14:13)

He learned of the meaning of photographs for his participants. They are a way of depicting
social relationships and of documenting behaviours. Experience shows us that underlying the
intentionality and the interpretation is a desire to learn from the other. And so image-making
in ethnographic research has to be an act of engagement. The choice of visual media can play
a crucial part in this engagement. This will be the topic of discussion in our next section